UK international airports: The best alternatives to Heathrow

For many Australian travellers, visiting the UK usually means flying to London – and landing at Heathrow. A frequent-flyer colleague of mine was being polite when he described Heathrow – the world's busiest airport after Dubai – as "a hassle, unfriendly and sterile". But don't fret, there are plenty of alternative entry points outside the British capital and its labyrinthine (and occasionally hellish) hub. All reachable on one-stop flights from Australia, this vibrant quintet are just the ticket: richly-rewarding places in which to set up camp for several days (or more), combining urban thrills with rural escapes on the doorstep. If London calls, all cities are linked by rail and most with domestic flights.

EDINBURGH

Famed for its split personality – its Old Town is rife with dark, cobbled nooks and crannies, while its New Town boasts graceful Georgian squares and crescents – Edinburgh is arguably Britain's most delectable city. Savour it on the Eat Walk Edinburgh tour (eatwalkedinburgh.co.uk), a guided, anecdote-packed stroll, with refuelling stops in characterful establishments. Think: smoked salmon at Hotel du Vin (which occupies the city's old lunatic asylum), whisky-tinged haggis at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and cranachan – a dessert of oats, cream, whisky and raspberries – in Ghillie Dhu (a cavernous watering hole by the funky new Edinburgh Gin Distillery). Recent additions to the culinaryscape include the Tower Restaurant (above the superb National Museum of Scotland); Contini Cannonball, a fine dining eatery/cafe/gelateria a stone's throw from Edinburgh Castle; the lovably rustic Gardener's Cottage; and neo-bistro Aizle, whose tasting menu changes monthly, and harnesses a diverse "harvest" of ingredients, such as Loch Awe sea trout, Inverurie hogget and Braeburn apple.

WHO FLIES THERE Etihad from Sydney and Melbourne via Abu Dhabi. Qatar from Melbourne via Doha.

DAY-TRIPS Rosslyn Chapel (which starred in The Da Vinci Code) and Linlithgow Palace (birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots) are a half-hour's drive from Edinburgh.

GLASGOW

Viewed as Edinburgh's edgier, less attractive cousin, Glasgow comes as a pleasant surprise to first-time visitors. Its old Gaelic name, Glaschu, translates to Dear Green Place, and over 90 parks and public gardens bless this, Scotland's largest metropolis. Proud of its buzzing live music and comedy scenes, Glasgow also oozes architectural flair. Swanky bars and restaurants have mushroomed inside jazzed-up Georgian tobacco warehouses and grand neo-classical mansions (one acclaimed recent opening is The Anchor Line Bar & Grill, an American-Scottish joint with a Prohibition-era interior theme in an old cruise line booking office). Glasgow has scores of quirky Art Nouveau buildings designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (notably The Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street), while flashy modern structures overlook the River Clyde, site of Glasgow's once-mighty shipbuilding industry. Masterminded by Zaha Hadid​, the Riverside Museum – which displays vintage Glaswegian trams, trains and horse-drawn wagons – is among the city's free-to-enter cultural attractions.

WHO FLIES THERE Emirates from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai.

DAY-TRIPS Stirling, with its awesome castle and epic monument to William Wallace, and Loch Lomond, Scotland's largest lake, are under an hour away, see timberbush-tours.co.uk.

NEWCASTLE

Some age-old stereotypes about Newcastle still ring (slightly) true. Nicknamed 'Geordies', the amicable locals famously love their nights out (with many shunning jackets even in frosty temperatures). They're soccer-mad, too, regularly filling out the giant St James' Park stadium – home of Newcastle United, or The Toon. But the city shatters many preconceptions. Formerly dominated by heavy industries – especially coal mining – Newcastle has some of urban Britain's loveliest-looking streets (particularly Grey Street, a sloping thoroughfare whose sandstone terraces, housing classy cafes, restaurants and theatres, evoke genteel Bath). The Grade I-listed Grainger Market shelters produce stalls and food outlets (including the world's smallest Marks & Spencer store). To appreciate just how much Newcastle has changed in recent decades, book a walking tour with guide Alexander Jacobs (northernsecrets.co.uk).

WHO FLIES THERE Emirates from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai.

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DAY-TRIPS Edged by surf-friendly beaches, the Victorian resort of Tynemouth is 20 minutes from Newcastle by Metro (or 40 minutes by bicycle; hire with thecyclehub.org. Roman relics stud Newcastle's edges, notably the 135km-long Hadrian's Wall.

MANCHESTER

Mining Manchester's rich musical, sporting, industrial and architectural heritage, a string of glossy new thangs have further boosted a revitalised city that's changed beyond all recognition since its centre was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1996. Co-owned by five former Manchester United players (including Ryan Giggs​), Hotel Football has sprouted next to Old Trafford stadium, while Hotel Gotham – which touts itself as the 'sexiest hotel' in Europe – lures well-heeled guests to the ex-Midland Bank, an art deco star crafted by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The veteran Whitworth art gallery sports a sleek $30 million face-lift, and the mammoth new HOME contemporary arts and film centre graces Tony Wilson Place (named after the legendary producer of Mancunian bands, Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays). In the trendy Northern Quarter, weather-beaten textile mills have morphed into eclectic shops, cafes, bars and restaurants (visitmanchester.com).

WHO FLIES THERE Emirates and Etihad from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Qatar fly to Manchester from Melbourne via Doha.

DAY-TRIPS Manchester's big rivals, Liverpool and Leeds, are less than an hour away by rail, while medieval York is 75 minutes. Bohemian Hebden Bridge, a rejuvenated former mill town, is a highlight of the brooding, hiker-friendly Pennines hills.

BIRMINGHAM

Birmingham – or Brum, as it's dubbed – has become an increasingly popular city break, as word spreads about the myriad charms of what Bill Clinton labelled "an extraordinary jewel of a city". A cradle of the Industrial Revolution, once known as "The City of A Thousand Trades", Brum sits at the crossroads of England's national canal network, with the locals – Brummies – claiming they have "more canals than Venice". You can ride quaint narrowboats on restored waterways in and around the city, and tread revamped towpaths flanked by charming eateries and cosy pubs. In September, the glittering new New Street railway station was unveiled – a flagship project of the Big City Plan, an urban renewal scheme aimed at transforming Brum into one of the world's 20 most liveable cities (visitbirmingham.com).

WHO FLIES THERE Emirates from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai.

DAY TRIPS Cadbury's World (run by the chocolate company founded in Birmingham in 1824), Aston Hall (one of Britain's finest Jacobean mansions) and Sarehole Mill (a childhood haunt of JRR Tolkien) dot Brum's outskirts.

The writer was a guest of Visit Britain, Visit Scotland and partners. See visitbritain.com; visitscotland.com.

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See also: Airports: The one unpleasant thing no traveller can avoid

 

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